26th March 2020
I recently got back from our Gujarat tour in the northwest of India, a state that receives fewer visitors than popular Rajasthan, but has just as much going for it! Known for it's incredible textiles and diverse ethnic groups, Gujarat's appeal, like most places in India, is all about it's incredibly hospitable people. But the state also boasts a dazzling array of landscapes like the Great Rann of Kutch, a range of different arts and crafts and some more offbeat, unique experiences, so I've summed up my best six things to do while you're in Gujarat.
There’s something about staying in a heritage home that just transports you through time and apparently into another world altogether. You could be driving through a bustling town or market area, with motorbike horns resounding and the din of daily life pulling your attention every which way, then suddenly you’re walking through a flowered archway into serenity, where all you can hear is the birds and rustling of the leaves.
These old colonial buildings are full to the brim with charm, often dotted with antiques, all lattice windows, heavy wooden doors and old fashioned decor. India can be chaotic, it’s what makes it so enthralling, because amongst it all you feel a sense of peace no matter how manic it gets, but a stay in a heritage home is a great place to wind down within walls that hold a thousand stories. There’s nothing more romantic.
The bizarre landscape of the Great Rann of Kutch will make you feel like you’ve landed on another planet. The desert fills up with rainwater during the monsoon season but once it evaporates, it leaves behind salt flats as far as the eye can see. Walking across it feels like crunching through snow, except against the horizon you see a lumbering camel adorned with colourful pom-poms and tassels.
Visit in winter and make sure you’re there for sunset when the whole sky is brushed in pastel colours and the sun burns a bright orange as it descends. It’s otherworldly, serene and a complete contrast to most of the landscapes you’ll see in India.
Gujarat is world-famous for its textiles and you’ll soon see why. The intricate, colourful designs come in a huge variety of embroidery patterns that are unique to the different ethnic groups in the region.
Whether you have an interest in textiles or not, it's fascinating to see the difference and the sheer skill that goes into every quilt, shawl, skirt or wall hanging you come across. A visit to Shrujan Museum is a real treat to see the process, diversity, to understand a little about all the different ethnic groups and the stories behind the popular motifs, occasions for certain costumes and the evolution of their function over the years.
The region abounds in different arts and crafts like Ajrak block printing, Karad weaving, Rogan painting, woodcraft and pottery. Quite often these skills are being practised by one or two families and the best part is visiting them to see them hard at work creating and explaining their craft. The painting by hand is particularly mesmerising, you’ll wonder how they have the patience and dedication for creating such beautifully detailed works of art.
If you like bird watching, Gujarat has a plethora of interesting birds to look out for. From seeing flocks of flamingos on a lake to a Kingfisher diving for fish in a nearby stream, it was fascinating even for amateurs (i.e. me). We also saw egrets, cranes, drongos, an owl and of course, plenty of peacocks.
The Rann of Kutch is also home to some rather unique wildlife and taking the jeep on a safari to the arid deserts, where it looks like anything would struggle to survive, we visited the Wild Ass Sanctuary to see the Indian Wild Ass. They’re now only found in this area but were once found all across north-western India, as well as Pakistan and Iran.
Jain temples, Hindu temples, Mosques - the great thing about India is that so many religions live side by side and interestingly enough, their places of worship are heavily influenced by the others. You’ll recognise Islamic domes and arches in temples and Hindu-influenced open lotus flower designs in Mosques, it pays to keep your eyes peeling for the beautiful details in these buildings. That’s half the fun!
The other half is just enjoying the peaceful ambience when it’s quiet and the drum beats and rhythmic chanting while pressed up against other worshippers when it’s not. People are always keen to welcome you into these ceremonies and seem eager to explain certain practises. One highlight was participating in an evening aarti, where we sang with devotees and passed hands over a candle flame to receive the deities blessings.
If you can brave the uphill pilgrimage of 3500 steps on Satrunjaya hill in Palitana, you’ll be rewarded with the impressive Jain temple complex consisting of more than 900 marble temples. Considered the most sacred pilgrimage site in the Jain community, the construction of the temples took roughly 900 years to complete. Enter the lesser-visited site to the right when you reach the fork in the path. It’s quieter and the view over the main temple site amongst the clouds is staggering.
It won’t take long to have a look around Mandvi’s dhow building yard but it is definitely worth it. Seeing the skeletons of these immense boats lining the river, you couldn’t quite tell whether they were being dismantled or built anew. The 400-year-old tradition of building these cargo dhows is probably on it’s way out and some of the ships sit partially done for months as funding runs out, but it’s hard to wrap your head around how it’s even possible for them to be hand built.
It all starts from a single beam of Sal wood that makes up the base of the ship's hull and the planks that form the ship's body are gently bent over fire into shape. The craftsmen that build these dhows don’t even refer to a blueprint to, let alone use complex machinery. Climbing up into the belly of a roughly 50 meter long dhow with a capacity of up to 2,000 tonnes, it’s hard to comprehend that this wooden beast could even float. In fact, the gaps are stuffed with cotton dipped in fish oil to make it water-tight. It’s a truly impressive feat.